The business model of today is changing. Brick-and-mortar companies are slowly being replaced by virtual teams who operate with nothing but laptops, cell phones, cups of joe and chocolate filled croissants (sugar free, of course) in the nearest coffee shop.
If you’re a business founder, working virtually makes sense. There’s no overhead, you don’t have to worry about arriving late to the office (since there isn’t one) and when you replace full-time hires with individual contractors (1099s), you save yourself a ton of money in providing healthcare.
However, there’s a flip side to this, an understated challenge that lurks below the surface of day-to-day activities: leadership. After all, if leadership is authentic self-expression that instills value in others so much that it compels them to act, how does one do this over Skype?
Leading a team isn’t easy, and doing so remotely is much more difficult because now the human factor is absent. You have to fight to inject personality into the mix and remind the team that they are just that -- part of a T-E-A-M.
When leading a virtual team, your actions must be much more calculated because it’s easy to lose context through cyberspace. In other words, the message sent is not always the message received (how many “funny” texts have you sent that didn’t land?) so communication requires even more diligence. Communicating must become a habit.
If you’re leading a virtual team, keep these six practices in mind to strengthen team cohesion:
1. Focus on the process, then the goal.
In a brick-and-mortar company, you have the luxury of stopping in colleagues offices, calling them on the phone or running into them at the coffee mess. Not so when a thousand miles apart. Just as you outline the tasks you want accomplished for the day, identify how you will communicate and with whom. The more video, the better, because it humanizes everyone involved.
2. Check in daily.
I hate this saying, but it’s true: perception is reality. If you were to pit two hypothetical subordinates against each other where one checks in with you daily and the other every few days, the perception is that the former is working harder than the latter. However, the truth is you just don’t know.
To eliminate (or at least reduce) this cognitive bias, have each team member check in with you daily to state his or her tasks and what they’re tracking on. It's always better to over-communicate than to under-deliver.
3. Share objectives daily.
Team members need to know how their individual behaviors align toward the overall objective(s). That way, they can make their own course corrections along the way without having the boss weigh in upon every decision.
4. Post yesterday’s achievements.
This is not to be confused with a forced ranking system. By posting yesterday’s accomplishments, each member can see how their own individual efforts map against everyone else’s. They can also see who needs help, because at the end of the day, success is being measured by what the team accomplishes, not individual merit.
5. Have a weekly video teleconference.
Despite the distance between teammates, you can still personalize communication through video teleconferencing (VTC). Host a weekly VTC just so team members can see each other’s mugs and make sure there is a human on the other end.
6. Don’t worry about motivation.
Yes, I said it. The question “how do you motivate people” has plagued researchers for decades. Here’s my take (take it for what it’s worth): Motivation, by definition, is the internal desire to succeed, which means you don’t motivate people -- they motivate themselves. What you can do, however, is immerse those people in the right environment that facilitates individual drive and talent.
No matter if your team works in one place or is geographically dispersed, as the leader it's your responsibility to create the environment that facilitates trust, openness and commitment.